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Shashank Sinha on ‘Addressing The Gap’

Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri; Photo credit: Shantanu Goyal

Shashank Sinha on ‘Addressing The Gap’

The author of Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories says he has tried to address the gap between academic and popular understandings of history in the book.

Sanjitha Rao Chaini
By Sanjitha Rao Chaini20 December 2021
Interviews

The author of Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories says he has tried to address the gap between academic and popular understandings of history in the book.

From the Harappan structures to the Mughal tombs, India boasts of a rich heritage. Still, it is a tough task to find authentic and analytical writings on the evolution of historical monuments and ancient ruins in India. Thankfully, some historians, such as Shashank Shekhar Sinha, author of Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories (Pan Macmillan India), have researched the monuments and separated the wheat from the chaff. In an e-interview with India Art Review’s Sanjitha Rao Chaini, Sinha talks about his book, the research he undertook to write it, and more Excerpts:

How did you get the idea of writing Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri?
This book, and the ones in the pipeline, are a product of my desire to reconnect with the history of heritage sites. In the last many years, I have been working at the intersections of history and anthropology, on issues related to gender, tribes, and witch-hunting. This desire took me back to historical buildings and artifacts, and stories associated with them. However, I was visiting/revisiting the monuments as a person who has interacted with the discipline of history in several capacities — as a student, a teacher, a researcher, and a publisher. I was also revisiting these sites as a researcher who is particularly interested in the possible journeys of a knowledge base or a body of knowledge — how knowledge on a subject is produced, documented, disseminated, and consumed/received by different constituencies of people. And it was during these visits/revisits that the idea of the present book was born.

Further, there was a wide gap between racy and entertaining narratives offered by most tourist guides available at such sites and the academically dense knowledge produced in the universities/institutions. The space between the guides and academic books was inhabited by travel websites (which reproduce the same generic information with some rephrasing or modifications) and guidebooks, which did not reflect or engage with the latest research in the area. Some of the available guidebooks, in fact, still base themselves on knowledge produced during the early decades of the 20thcentury. All these led me to think about a book on heritage sites, which could try and address this gap between academic and popular understandings of history.

But why Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri? And why now?
The UNESCO World Heritage Sites in these three former imperial cities — Qutb Minar, Humayun’s tomb, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Taj Mahal and Red Fort — consistently figure in the list of Top 10 destinations attracting most tourists. Now, if there are significant gaps in the academic and public knowledge domains around these most well-studied and well-researched heritage sites, then one can imagine the situation in the regions that do not figure so prominently on the tourism or research canvas.

Also, we are living in times marked by hopes, anxieties and contradictions. There is considerable public interest in history and historical matters for a variety of reasons. One can see this in the increasing popularity of films and serials connected with history, historical fiction, heritage walks, heritage photography, etc. I often say we are witnessing a return of history, though one may debate about its shapes and trajectories. Further, there is unprecedented polarization in the debates/discussions related to history. In a situation characterized by an ever-widening gap between academic and popular understandings of history, some questions are being repeatedly asked. Do we need to make history and historical research more accessible to common people? Does history need to have a larger societal connect? In such a context, this book is both timely and relevant.


Tell us about the research work you undertook to write this book?

My approach was to read and collate information from critical secondary academic works (books or journal articles) on the three cities and the heritage sites within them. I also included the narratives of the tourist guides, wherever applicable, and combined them with available popular histories. I made several field visits too. During the writing of the book, I also got opportunities to present parts of my research at webinars and online talks. Feedbacks on such presentations and on articles I had been writing for Frontline or The Wire helped me a lot in pitching the content at an appropriate level.

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Shashank Sinha


Did your mission throw up any surprises?
The gaps and omissions in the existing scholarship was a surprise. Given history’s so direct and intimate association with heritage sites and also the enormous potential of such sites as sources of historical knowledge, I was surprised to discover how limited a space they occupy in the related reconstructions of the past. Also, how limited a use we make of the larger potential of heritage sites in the teaching of history.

There were some other eye-openers as well. While there are some good and exemplary works available on different aspects of heritage sites, we face a considerable shortage of quality works. For example, I had to struggle to gather material for a full chapter on the history of Humayun’s tomb.

Another issue that came out as particularly striking is how monuments have remained as frozen, tangible entities in history books. Some historians are trying to highlight the substantive and dynamic role heritage sites can play in retelling the histories of the concerned times. Heritage sites can offer multi-layered and multi-dimensional histories which could be both intriguing and interesting. Heritage sites play a critical role in the public imagination of history and therefore they have a much larger public connect than what is popularly assumed. Alongside museums, these constitute spaces where people come face-to-face with buildings and/or artifacts; spaces where people come very close to the idea of experiencing history.

Next, in their description as heritage sites, monuments are repositories of a wider historical and cultural legacy, and they offer much more than just information on art and architecture. They have larger geo-cultural connections. For example, the Delhi Sultanate sites have organic connections with the developments in Central Asia. The construction of Qutb Minar, for instance, was celebrated in a faraway land like Egypt. Likewise, monuments built by the Mughal emperor Akbar not only reflected regional influences such as those of Rajasthan, Malwa, Gwalior, Gujarat, and others but also Timurid and Persian influences.

Even artifacts or structures within individual monuments have very intriguing histories. The iron pillar in the courtyard of the congregational mosque in the Qutb Minar complex had multiple lives spreading across cultures, geographies, and time periods. It was originally erected during the Gupta period (4-5th century CE), probably in front of the Udayagiri caves in Vidisha. Around the 11-12thcenturies, it gets incorporated in the folklore of the Rajputs through the legend of killi dhilli katha, mentioned in the epic poem Prithviraj Raso. Finally, during the 14th Century CE, a textual reference points to the Turkish sultan Iltutmish re-erecting the pillar in the Qutb mosque.

Heritage sites also have a life after their builders/patrons have passed away. I call it the afterlife. The story of how Red Fort, the palace-fortress of 17th-century Mughal capital Shahjahanabad, became a site of independent India’s Independence Day celebrations subsumes within itself several interesting anecdotes connected with the afterlife of a monument.

And finally, monuments have stories and legends surrounding them which, over a period of time, become an integral part of the narrative on the monument. Most visitors to the Taj Mahal, for instance, want to hear about the story of the Black Taj Mahal. Historians need to figure out a way of dealing with such legends.

How can a historian add credibility to the process of writing?
Historians highlight complexities and layers in a way practitioners of other related disciplines would not. Components that become important to historians include, among other things, the study of contexts, primacy of evidence-based approach and reliance on credible source material, the role of temporal and spatial variations, and dynamic dialogues between the past and present. Now, including all these layers and complexities could be a complex task. So, what one needs is a framework that is more inclusive and a format that is more interesting.

While there could be various conceptual frameworks, the one I use for Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri (and for other books planned in the series) is connected histories. I use three components in my framework, which question a strictly monument-centred approach found in many existing studies.

First, the larger geo-cultural connections of the sites in question. These bring to fore the wider historical context(s). Second, the afterlife of a site — what happens to the site after the primary builders/patrons have passed away from the scene? Sometimes, events/episodes happening in the afterlife become dominant prisms or windows for looking at a monument or a site.

Third, the inclusion of both the tangible and the intangible. So, while the buildings and artefacts are important, myths, legends and popular histories surrounding them also form an integral part of the larger world of the monuments, especially for the general public.

Sometimes, popular histories even take precedence over dense academic narratives. I feel historians should engage with these intangibles more creatively rather than being summarily dismissive about them. One of the ways I deal with this conundrum in my book is to tell the story of how a particular myth or legend came into being. The idea was to replace one story with another without compromising on the historical essence.

What makes good historical non-fiction writing according to you?
This question leads us to some other questions: Does history need to make more sense to the common people? Do we need to rethink the way we write history? It is unfair to compare ‘academic history’ with ‘popular history’, though sometimes they overlap with each other. Both have their own styles, approaches, rigour, and reading constituencies. That said, if historians wish to reach out to a larger audience on matters having a wider public connect/ramification, they will need to use a language that is more accessible and intelligible to non-history public as well. So, I think presenting complex academic research in a simple language helps alongside a story-telling technique that creatively engages with elements of popular history. In some cases, like a book on heritage sites, visuals occupy a central space.

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Cities and towns across India are peppered with heritage monuments. Are we doing enough to preserve our historical landmarks?
It is often said India has a problem of plenty as far as heritage sites are concerned but not a matching infrastructure. As far as preservation of heritage sites is concerned, common problems cited include shortage of funds and skilled personnel, public encroachments and brick mining, lack of awareness, absence of reliable information on the sites, varying levels of government support, etc. Many monuments have disappeared completely. Many sites lay under or semi-excavated and a lot still needs to be excavated.

As a person working on history and heritage sites, I think three broader, overlapping processes could play an important part in preservation. First, putting the site on the local physical and cultural map: Establishing the historical importance and local relevance could involve creating a dynamic information base around the monuments by way of proper signages and plaques, information booklets/pamphlets, local documentation centre, and making available related reading material. These days integration with GIS is possible too. The role of local administration could be useful in mapping the site.

Second, creating a reliable ecosystem, consisting of physical and human components, around the site: This could involve creating boundaries and buffer zones, ticketing facilities (if required), security networks, help desks and information centres. The dynamic site information base could be used to train the staff, sensitize the local communities (especially on its local relevance and its larger cultural and economic potential) tourists guides, hotels and travel networks. Linkages with schools and local governance structures could also play an important role. In the technical language of preservation, this is called effecting buy-ins from the stakeholders. Here, I am suggesting proactively creating stakeholders and goodwill ambassadors. And here, an integrated and multi-pronged approach will help.

Third, exploring/soliciting superior support whether in the form of funds, skills, training, technology, or partnerships and collaborations. One can cite a few examples here. The use of remote sensing technology, as seen in the case of Nalanda, has helped us rethink the boundaries of the Mahavihara complex. Likewise, public-private partnership models of preservation, as seen in the case of Humayun’s tomb or Red Fort, are gaining increasing traction. We are also borrowing international expertise for preservation of some sites. While such collaborations are important, even systematic intra- and inter-state sharing of skills and expertise could be of big help.

Of these three processes, the first two help us create a minimum critical infrastructure while the third refines and sophisticates that infrastructure. And finally, we would need to change the way we conventionally look at the monuments — primarily as buildings belonging to a particular individual/dynasty or group and tracing its functional/utilitarian aspects — and see them as repositories of a wider historical and cultural heritage. A dynamic conceptual framework will change the way we approach issues related to preservation and conservation.

What are you working on at the moment?
Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri
is a part of a three-book series on heritage. I am now working on the second book which deals with Buddha, Buddhist cities and sites. It will follow the same framework as the first book and locate the heritage sites in their larger geographical, socio-cultural and historical contexts. Like Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, the second book will aim to provide a multilayered and multi-dimensional account of the evolution of Buddhist sites, their architectural details, the life and times of the primary builders/patrons, their afterlives, anecdotes and folklore surrounding them as well as debates and controversies related to such sites. The volume will contain comprehensive, illustrated and self-sufficient chapters on the Unesco World Heritage Sites. Like the first book, it will also bring together latest and complex academic research from across disciplines in a simplified form.

What are you reading now?
I am currently reading three interesting books on history: Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions by Upinder, Singh. Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues that Made History by Michael Wood, and The Return of the Buddha by Himanshu Prabha Ray.

Read an extract from the book here: Why did Akbar Choose to Build a New Capital at Fatehpur Sikri?

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By Sanjitha Rao Chaini20 December 2021